Kaya Oakes on the Often Reimagined, and Always Radical Figure of Mother Mary

A Chiapas family visits the Basilica of Guadalupe to bless the youngest daughter in Dec. 2018, in Mexico. RNS photo by Irving Cabrera Torres

Kaya Oakes is the author of four books, most recently including The Nones Are Alright. Her fifth book, on faith and feminism, will be released in 2021. She teaches writing at UC Berkeley.


In the year 1531, an indigenous Mexican peasant named Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin climbed Tepeyac hill, near what is now Mexico City. There, he had a series of apparitions of the Virgin Mary, who appeared to him not as the porcelain-skinned, blonde, blue-robed figure familiar from many church statues, but as a visibly pregnant, brown-skinned teenage girl, speaking not in Spanish, the language of missionaries and conquerors, but in Juan Diego’s native Nahuatl.

And according to him, her first words to the terrified young man were this: “Am I not here, who am your mother?”

The recent resurgence of interest in Mary and proliferation of images of her in popular culture can be traced to moments like these, when she appears unexpectedly, often to marginalized people in challenging situations. In many cases, those people testify that like the Virgin of Guadalupe encountered by Juan Diego, Mary offered them protection in moments of danger.

She has become a mother figure to millions, many of them non-Christians, and in these difficult days, many who have lost their mothers, who are struggling mothers themselves, or those who cannot be with their mothers are turning to Mary for consolation and support.

But it’s important to understand that the Mary we meet on Mother’s Day in 2020 is not the same Palestinian Jewish girl who gave birth to Jesus 2,000 years ago.

Nor is Mary a sentimentally perfect woman, meek, mild and passive, a religious Hallmark card who has come to represent the idealized mother figure most of our own mothers would struggle to measure up to.

In Elizabeth Johnson’s book on Mary, “Truly Our Sister,” she writes that this version of Mary “functions paradoxically to disparage all other women,” and since the hierarchy of the Catholic Church has long taught that no woman can be as pure and obedient as Mary, all other women can therefore be seen as sinful temptresses. This idea still lingers in the church today, as evidenced by the priest who was trashed on Twitter last year when he told women to cover their shoulders in church, not for their own sake, but to protect the purity of men.

Johnson has a very different view of Mary, reframing her as a radical visionary who sees a more equitable world as God’s desire for humanity.

During the pregnant Mary’s visit to her older but also pregnant cousin Elizabeth, Mary sings the Magnificat, which Johnson describes as “the prayer of a poor woman.” In the Magnificat, Mary speaks of a world where God raises the lowly and sends the rich away, where the social order is upended and the poor and vulnerable are the most beloved. Mary, being young and female and living under the oppressive rule of the Roman Empire, is chosen by God because she is unconventional and inconsequential.

And she sings this song not to an audience of powerful men but to another pregnant woman.

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Source: Religion News Service